Predicting Success in a Challenging Institutional Context

Beyond talent and grit in understanding human achievement.

Posted Nov 04, 2019

I have always maintained that, excepting fools, men did not differ much in intellect, only in zeal and hard work; and I still think this is an eminently important difference. – Charles Darwin[1]

An exciting development in psychology over the past twenty years is the increased focus on noncognitive factors in determining success, particularly for long-term, difficult tasks. To be a great scholar, athlete, or writer—what is more important: a high IQ, or an unwavering pursuit of the goal? This is what Darwin had in mind when contemplating the relative contributions of intellect and zeal in determining who excels and flourishes in life.

Angela Duckworth’s concept of grit—the passionate pursuit of long-term goals—directly addresses this question. Grit has been linked to high achievement among Ivy League psychology students, National Spelling Bee contestants, and West Point cadets, just to name a few.[2] The study of West Point cadets was especially informative because of the duration of the study (47 months) and the intensity of the subjects' experiences. Because West Point made available measures of talent, including aptitude test scores, Duckworth and her colleagues were able to assess the relative contribution of talent and grit to a variety of outcomes. Grit was found to be the only reliable predictor of completing new cadet basic training (CBT) and combined with measures of talent, was found to add incrementally to the prediction of academic, military, and physical fitness grades.[3] Gritty cadets thus were more likely to survive the rigors of the initial military training and had an edge over their less gritty counterparts in other aspects of their performance.

Duckworth and her associates recently published a comprehensive analysis of the relative contributions of cognitive and noncognitive factors in determining success at West Point.[4] (I am a co-author on the paper.) Based on a decade of data collection that included over 10,000 cadets, this study pitted academic ability, as assessed by SAT scores, versus grit and a measure of physical ability (the cadet candidate fitness assessment, or CFA) in predicting quitting early (i.e., failing CBT and dropping out of West Point), doing well (cumulative academic, military, and physical fitness grades during the cadet’s nearly four years at West Point), and finishing what you begin (actually graduating from West Point).

This expanded study of cognitive and noncognitive factors in success at West Point is important because (1) it represents a meta-analysis of data from nine separate cohorts of cadets, (2) possesses high ecological validity in that excelling in and completing West Point’s four-year program leading to a commission in the U.S. Army and a Bachelor’s degree is a highly valued goal, and (3) the sample size is 50 times larger than the typical studies of this sort, even those published in high impact journals. This provides the immense statistical power needed to tease out subtle curvilinear interaction effects.

Michael K. Deegan, used with permission.
Cadets practice basic rifle marksmanship skills as part of their military training.
Source: Michael K. Deegan, used with permission.

The results demonstrate that the mix of cognitive and noncognitive skills needed to excel at West Point depends very much on just what type of outcome is being predicted. For quitting early, the results confirmed that the original finding that only grit predicts the completion of CBT, based on data from the West Point Classes of 2008 and 2009, was no fluke. Neither cognitive ability nor physical ability contributed appreciably to a cadet completing CBT.

Those familiar with the nature and rigor of military basic training may not be surprised that cognitive ability is not linked to success in this context. One’s SAT scores have little to do with learning military customs and courtesies, marching, or basic rifle marksmanship. But CBT does present a number of physical challenges ranging from long road marches with heavy packs to rigorous daily physical training. Thus, the failure of physical aptitude to predict CBT completion is somewhat surprising.

What matters most for doing well? It depends. Cognitive ability was the most robust predictor of academic and military grades. A small but statistically significant positive correlation was found between cognitive ability and physical fitness grades as well. Physical aptitude, on the other hand, was the best predictor of physical GPA and was also a moderately strong predictor of military GPA. Interestingly, physical aptitude showed a significant and positive, but weak in magnitude, relationship to academic GPA. Finally, grit was positively, but not robustly, related to all three outcomes of doing well.

Finishing what you begin may provide the most intriguing findings. Over the ten years studied, 81 percent of cadets completed their degrees and graduated from West Point. Cognitive ability came in a distant third behind grit and physical ability in predicting four-year graduation. While there were no interactions among the three predictor variables, curvilinear relationships were found for both cognitive and physical ability. Increases in physical ability up to the 89th percentile were associated with a higher chance of graduating, but higher levels were linked to lower graduation rates. A similar relationship was found with cognitive ability, with the inflection point occurring at the 95th percentile. This is a particularly intriguing finding—and likely one that is troublesome to the leaders at West Point—who would likely hope that their strongest and most cognitively gifted cadets were the most likely to graduate.

Collectively, the results of this study reinforce the notion that a mix of cognitive and noncognitive attributes combine to predict success and that what represents the best predictor hinges on the outcome being predicted. Keeping in mind that West Point is an elite higher educational institution (for example, ranking fifth all-time in number of Rhodes Scholars behind Harvard University/Radcliffe College, Yale University, Princeton University, and Stanford University) and graduates large numbers of other national scholarship recipients and awards-winners, it may be surprising that cognitive ability had less to do with graduating than either grit or physical ability. And the finding of a curvilinear relationship between both cognitive and physical ability and graduating is worthy of further study. Why do the smartest and strongest cadets graduate at a lower rate than their peers? And, from the institution’s perspective, what can be done to reverse this trend? Who knows how many potential future generals, or even presidents, leave West Point prematurely? Moreover, how do different cognitive and noncognitive attributes play out in other institutional contexts?

Psychology is in the business of understanding and predicting behavior. Across all of the attributes and demographic variables included in this study, only about 4 percent of the total variance in quitting early, doing well, and finishing what you begin was accounted for. The study did demonstrate that including a noncognitive attribute that is rarely examined—physical ability—was important in predicting various outcomes. Surely, adding additional measures to the three included in this study would increase the variance accounted for. But human behavior is complex and is affected by many variables, compounded by significant individual differences. As Duckworth, et al. conclude in their study, “There may be severe limits to how well any set of personal attributes can forecast an individual’s destiny. Contexts change. Additionally, life trajectories are shaped by the whims of chance and path dependency.”

Note: The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not reflect the position of the United States Military Academy, the Department of the Army, or the Department of Defense.

References

[1] Charles Darwin, The Correspondence of Charles Darwin (Cambridge University Press, 1869), p. 530. Had Darwin written this in 2019 rather than 1869, we are confident he would have included women in his statement.

[2] For a detailed discussion of grit, see Angela Duckworth, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance (New York: Scribner, 2016).

[3] Angela L. Duckworth, Christopher Peterson, Michael D. Matthews, and Dennis R. Kelly, “Grit: Perseverance and Passion for Long Term Goals,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 92:6 (2007): 1087–101, doi:10.1037/0022-3514.92.6.1087

[4] Angela L. Duckworth, Abigail Quirk, Robert Gallop, Rick H. Hoyle, Dennis R. Kelly, and Michael D. Matthews, “Cognitive and Non-cognitive Predictors of Success,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, November 4, 2019, 201910510; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.191051011